Mary Rowlandson – Captive in 1675/76

By Libby Klekowski

Thursday, February 10, 1675/76 — A state of alertness prevailed in the town of Lancaster, Massachusetts. Its 50 families were always ready to crowd into the 5 or 6 garrison houses in case of  an Amerindian attack. The continual war between King Philip’s forces and colonial troops made everyone aware of imminent danger.

Joseph Rowlandson, minister to the small frontier town, was in Boston appealing, once again, to the colonial government for protection. His appeal fell on deaf ears; the danger from attack was rated as minor.

Amerindians who had been driven from their territory by colonial troops were in desperate need of supplies. Lancaster would have all that was needed and, being undermanned, would not be able to resist the attack effectively. Thus while Reverend Rowlandson appealed for aid, warriors attacked his home and family.

Sunrise: Thirty-seven people were housed in the Rowlandson garrison house.  Abruptly gun shots were heard, three other houses were under attack. It was not long before the warriors turned to the Rowlandson’s house. Amid a flurry of bullets, three men were killed. Suddenly the smell of smoke permeated the inside of the house; the attackers had succeeded in setting fire to it.  As the inhabitants came out, the warriors attacked them. Mrs. Rowlandson relates, “Then I took Children (and one of my sisters, hers) togo forth and leave the house: but as soon as we came to the dore and appeared, the Indians shot so thick that the bulletts rattled against the House, as if one had taken an handfull of stones and threw them, so that we were fain to give back.” (p. 119, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson)

Finally Mary Rowlandson was forced to leave the burning house. Immediately she saw her brother-in-law fall, dead from wounds; her nephew, whose leg was broken, killed, and her sister shot. All around her was carnage. She was shot through her side and the child she carried in her arms was struck by the same bullet. There were 13 killed and 24 taken captive. According to Mary Rowlandson’s account, “I had often before this said, that if the Indians should come, I should chuse rather to be killed by them then taken alive but when it came to the tryal my mind changed; their glittering weapons so daunted my spirit, that I chose rather to go along … then that moment to end my days … .” (p. 121)

So began Mary Rowlandson’s journey as a servant with her captors, a journey that would take her westward to the Connecticut River and northward into Vermont and New Hampshire and would last for almost three months.  Wounded in her side and carrying a wounded child, Mrs. Rowlandson began her Arduous trek. For the first three days, there was nothing to eat, no roof over her head. At times a warrior carried the child; later she and the child were put up on a horse but she fell off because she couldn’t ride bareback. Finally she and her feverish child were put up behind a warrior. On the fourth day, she met Robbert Pepper, a man captured during the ambush at Beers Plain in Northfield the previous September. He suggested she place oak leaves on her wounded side, a practice that had cured his own leg wound earlier. On February 18, Mary’s child died in her arms and was buried on a hillside by the Amerindians. Her other daughter now belonged to another warrior and she soon found out her son was in a nearby encampment. It seems that although she was a captive, the Amerindians did not prevent her seeing her children and gave her a Bible to read.

At the end of February, Mary Rowlandson and her master and mistress left the main body of warriors behind. She would not see her daughter again until she was ransomed. In March the small warrior band traveled on to the Miller’s River in Orange, Massachusetts, followed closely by a troop of English. Again, according to the Rowlandson account, “… then they made a stop, and chose some of their stoutest men, and sent them back to hold the English Army in play whilst the rest escaped: And then, like Jehu, they marched on furiously, with their old, and with their young: some carried their old decrepit mothers, some carried one, and some another.” (p. 130)

When the group reached the Miller’s River (Baquaug), everyone fell to cutting dry trees to make rafts to cross the river. Mrs. Rowlandson rejoiced that she was able to cross without getting even a foot wet on that very cold day.  When Mary Rowlandson was first captured she felt she simply could not eat Amerindian food, “The first week of my being among them, I hardly ate anything; the second week, I found my stomach grow very faint for want of something; and yet it was very hard to get down their filthy trash: but the third week, though I could think how formerly my stomach would turn against this or that, and I could starve and dy before I could eat such things, yet they were sweet and savoury to my taste.” (pp. 130-131)

What kind of food was available to Mrs. Rowlandson?

“The chief and commonest food was Ground-nuts : They eat also Nuts and Acorns, Harty-choaks, Lilly roots, Ground-beans, and several other weeks and roots, that I know not.They would pick up old bones, and cut them to pieces at the joynts, and if they were full of wormes and magots, they would scald them over the fire to make the vermine come out, and then boile them, and drink up the Liquor, and then beat the great ends of them in a Morter, and so eat them. They would eat Horses guts, and ears, and all sorts of wild Birds which they could catch: also Bear, Vennison, Beaver, Tortois, Frogs, Squirrels, Dogs, Skunks, Rattle-snakes; yea, the very Bark of Trees; besides all sorts of creatures, and provision which they plundered from the English.” (pp. 159-160)

At this point, Mary Rowlandson was part of a very large Amerindian encampment at Squakeag (Northfield, Massachusetts). While the group remained there, Mrs. Rowlandson’s son Joseph came on a short visit. During her stay in this area, she was taken to meet King Philip. When he offered her a pipe of tobacco to smoke, she refused. She relates that “… though I had formerly used Tobacco, yet I had left it ever since I was first taken. It seems to be a Bait, the Devil layes to make men loose their previous time: I remember with shame, how formerly, when I had taken two or three pipes, I was presently ready for another, such a bewitching thing it is.

But I thank God, he has now given me power over it; surely there are many who may be better imployed than to ly sucking a stinking Tobacco-pipe.” (p. 134)

Mrs. Rowlandson made clothes and sold them to the members of the tribe. King Philip paid her a shilling to make a shirt for his boy. Although she offered her payment to her master, he told her to keep the money. She received payment in various forms: a knife or broth thickened with the bark of a tree for instance.

From Squakeag, the tribe moved up into New Hampshire, near the Ashuelot valley and then up to Chesterfield. Mrs. Rowlandson never knew exactly how she would be treated by the Amerindians. Although there were many acts of kindness, there also were many incidences of unkindness. During this period of her captivity, Mary saw her son several times, but then he was sold to a new master so she didn’t see him again until he was finally ransomed in Portsmouth.

Finally, when Mrs. Rowlandson thought she would never be taken eastward again, the tribe began to retrace its route to the Miller’s River, to Petersham and, finally, to Mount Wachusett. Here negotiations for her ransom began towardthe end of April. On May 2, 1676, Mary Rowlandson was exchanged at Redemption Rock for a ransom of twenty English pounds.

When she returned to Lancaster, there was not one European to be seen or one house left standing.

Mary Rowlandson published her experiences with the Amerindians in 1682. Her Memoir commanded intense interest in Great Britain as well as in the colonies for its portrayal of the daily danger of life in the colonies.

Reference for Mary Rowlandson’s account of her captivity: Lincoln, Charles H. 1913. Narratives of the Indian Wars. Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, reprinted 1966.

A new edition of Mrs. Rowlandson’s narrative of her captivity has been recently published under the title, THE NARRATIVEOF THE CAPTIVITY AND RESTORATION OF MRS. MARY ROWLANDSON by Mrs. Mary Rowlandson,0939218208. It is available for $9.95 plus $1.50 postage from Chapman Billies, Inc., P.O. Box 819, Sandwich MA 02563



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